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The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3

A-SystemWorldIn Stephenson’s concluding volume of his Baroque Cycle (after Quicksilver and The Confusion), a new "system of the world" emerges, based on a new idea of power—economic, scientific, and mechanical. At the center of this scientific revolution lies the aging Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse. After founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technologickal Arts, he returns to London in 1714 to settle a debate between his two friends—Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint, and Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. They can’t seem to reconcile which one invented calculus. This feud aside, England’s royal government, its economy, the future of science, and a legendary stash of gold are at stake. Not surprisingly, more than a few complicating characters and situations impede Waterhouse’s search for truth and reason.
William Morrow. 944 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060523875

Herald Tribune [Florida] 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is more than a well-done romance. Stephenson shows how coining, the scientific method, finance and banking, and manufacturing evolved during Newton’s lifetime; those changes put England on the edge of the modern world. … It’s a great book." David Lindsay

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It takes a lot of work to keep up with all the machinations, but there are plenty of payoffs for readers who remain sufficiently alert as the page count marches toward four digits. … The final pages … are more uplifting, not only because Stephenson plays by the rules of comedy in his denouement but also because The Baroque Cycle is clearly the work of a major writer in his prime, one who is apt to deliver other works as compelling, enlightening, frustrating and funny as this one." Michael Berry

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Newton vs. Leibniz; Newton vs. Shaftoe … System revolves around confrontations between interesting opponents, often taking place in odd yet plausible situations. … [Daniel’s] capacity for wonder will make it easy for fans of Stephenson’s science fiction to identify with him and will resonate with all readers who’ve realized that learning the way the world works is the greatest adventure of all." Nisi Shawl

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Alternating picaresque action sequences of violence, squalor and brutality with long passages of philosophical and scientific exposition, it switches its pace from the fast-forward furiousness of an MTV video to the glacial slowness of the academic expositor. … Some historical novelists complain about having to cope with too much information, too many facts; Stephenson wallows in them, drowning the reader in a sea of data. This may be good history, but it is poor fiction." John Brewer

Critical Summary

The conclusion to The Baroque Cycle is a veritable doorstop, but a doorstop perhaps worth its weight in 18th-century gold coins—especially to those who need a reminder about the dangerous misuses of science and "progress." Critics can’t heap enough praise on Stephenson’s eloquent narration, true-to-life characters, and impeccable plotting ("generated via Waterhouse’s Logic Mills," says the San Francisco Chronicle). Stephenson exquisitely unearths Baroque history, too, from mints to gardens to Jacobites. While compelling, you’ll best appreciate this epic history-romance-science fiction story "once you have a solid liberal arts education under your belt" (Chronicle). Stephenson mostly gets away with his philosophical pedantry because he’s so smart and inventive. If you have the courage to delve in, you won’t be disappointed. And if you can’t bring yourself to start with Quicksilver, System includes a preface relating "the story thus far" that reviewers found helpful enough.

Also in the Series

The Confusion Volume 2 | Neal Stephenson (2004): 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004. A love story between Jack Shaftoe and Countess de la Zeur is only one aspect of the continuing treatise on the scientific and financial developments of the 17th-century.